Republicans and Democrats argued bitterly Tuesday over Mitt Romney's assertion that nearly half of all Americans will vote for President Barack Obama "no matter what" because of their reliance on government.
Democrats gleefully pounced on the statement, suggesting the Republican presidential standard-bearer had committed the ultimate gaffe at a May fundraiser -- by writing off half the electorate as "victims" who depend on government aid.
"My job is not to worry about those people" in the election, Romney told the donors in a videotape of a private fundraiser in Florida.
The Obama campaign quickly produced a web video with voters criticizing the Romney statements.
"When you're president of the United States, you're president of all the people," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
But Republicans, both locally and nationally, strongly pushed back.
Many agreed with Romney's own admission that the comments were not "elegant," but said they made an important point: Too many Americans now rely on government checks to make ends meet while avoiding federal income taxes.
"Governor Romney's ... vision for the country is an expanding middle class with more opportunity for people," said former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, a key Romney adviser. "President Obama's vision ... is of government social programs."
The argument escalated at a critical time in the presidential campaign. Voters go to the polls 48 days from today, and most experts think the last few undecideds are now beginning to lock in their choices.
Several polls taken over the last week show Obama's bounce from the Democratic National Convention has receded. He has, however, maintained the small lead in the average of all polls that he has held for more than a year.
Some Republicans said the flap over Romney's remarks would only compound problems that have surfaced since their party's convention in Tampa, causing the campaign headaches in crucial swing states. The former Massachusetts governor faced some criticism for his early response to the violent Muslim protests in Egypt and Libya, while other media accounts have suggested disarray in the Republican's campaign.
"This is one of the worst weeks for any presidential candidate in a general election that any of us can remember," cable news host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican House member, said Tuesday morning on NBC.
Conservative William Kristol, writing for the Weekly Standard, called the Romney statements "stupid and arrogant."
But other conservatives said just the opposite. Romney, they argued, should step up his criticism of government aid recipients, not dial it back.
"Team Romney should force this debate onto the national stage," wrote conservative blogger Erick Erickson. "They should not walk it back. The American people are with him."
For his part, Romney defended his assertions in a statement provided by the Republican National Committee.
"The president believes in what I've described as a government-centered society, where government plays a larger and larger role," he said. "I happen to believe instead in a free-enterprise, free-individual society, where people pursuing their dreams are able to employ one another, build enterprises, build the strongest economy in the world."
Romney's statements to his donors, which included a claim that he would be doing better had his paternal grandparents been Mexican ("It would be helpful to be Latino," he said), were contained in the videotape of the private fundraiser. Donors contributed $50,000 to attend, according to published reports.
Romney held a similar fundraiser in Kansas City the week before the Florida event.
The tape was provided to several media outlets and posted online. Some news outlets reported that James Carter IV, grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, was involved in the release of the video.
On the tape, Romney answers a question by telling donors, "There are 47 percent who are with (Obama), who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. ... These are people who pay no income tax."
Romney's claim that 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax is basically accurate, according to an analysis of government data. That's because those taxpayers either didn't make enough money to face a federal tax liability, or their credits, exemptions, and deductions exceed their tax liability. They tend to be the poor and the elderly.
But almost all Americans pay some sort of tax, including federal payroll taxes, state and local taxes, sales taxes and other levies. Those taxes tend to affect the poor and middle class more than the wealthy, leading to a total tax system that is only slightly progressive, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal tax-study group.
Census figures also back up Romney's assertion that nearly half of Americans receive some sort of federal benefits. The biggest programs: Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and food stamps.
But critics contended that Romney appeared to have misleadingly conflated the two groups in his Florida remarks. Many Social Security recipients, for example, still pay federal income taxes. The half of Americans getting government benefits, they said, include veterans and the elderly who believe those checks were earned.
"It's shocking that a candidate for president of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare ... that half the American people view themselves as 'victims,' entitled to handouts and are unwilling to take 'personal responsibility' for their lives," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a statement.
Still, Romney supporters and Republicans said they hoped the candidate would use the controversy to clarify the statements and make the presidential choice clear.
"The more this race is focused on entitlement reform, and the big problems this country faces when it comes to how are we going to deal with these massive budget deficits ... all of that works ultimately in Mitt Romney's favor," said Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, a Romney supporter and delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Others argued that it wasn't even a gaffe.
"This is a classic moment in a campaign where you try to make chicken salad out of chicken something-else," said Bill Lacy, director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas and a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns. "He could very skillfully pivot to 'This election's about the president and the president's expansion of the federal government.' "
Lacy also noted that Obama made a similar controversial statement at a fundraiser more than four years ago. In 2008, candidate Obama referred to "bitter" voters who "cling" to guns and religion.
"He said it, he meant to say it, he consciously said it," Lacy said.
The Obama statement was made public just before the Pennsylvania primary, which he lost to Hillary Clinton by a large margin.
More recently, Obama has faced GOP attacks for saying that business owners "didn't build that," an assertion Republicans said was anti-entrepreneur, but which Democrats said was taken out of context.
And Vice President Joe Biden has been roundly criticized for a series of campaign-trail gaffes, including a claim this summer before a largely African-American audience that Republicans want to put some people "back in chains."
Those statements, like Romney's, quickly dominated Internet political chatter. Romney called a quick news conference Monday night to explain the remarks, but it did little to defuse arguments Tuesday.
Longtime Kansas City Democratic political consultant Steve Glorioso said the Romney incident contained another important lesson: Always assume your private comments will become public.
"Every candidate is now on notice," Glorioso said. "Nothing they say should be considered private or off the record. Nothing."